Who is Aristotle?
Aristotle was Plato’s most notable understudy who learned in The Academy of Athens, who pushed back on a lot of Plato’s ideas, but nonetheless was greatly influenced by the teachings of Plato. After Plato’s death and was passed over for the head master position at The Acedemy (primarily due to his opposing ideas), he set out to start his own school called, “The Lyceum.” Aristotle’s interest were varied and has direct influence in philosophy, biology, ethics, zoology, and theology. His vast amount of knowledge and groundbreaking insights led to people referring to him as simply, “The Philosopher.”
How is he different than Plato?
Plato’s big idea was that of the world of Forms, which this physical world we see only reflects upon and we can’t judge our own senses. Aristotle thinks otherwise and says that empirical observations through logic help us to understand reality; he doesn’t have a problem with using our senses as long as they can have validated answers. Plato is more focused on using inductive reasoning through mental exercises of allegories, while Aristotle uses deductive reasoning like that of the scientific method for validation.
Why does Aristotle focus on logic?
Aristotle needs to prove questions of reality can be proved without the need of universal forms, which he turns to logical reasoning as his basis. There are two main pillars to Aristotle’s logic that help him to derive at answers through deductive reasoning to prove that he’s not resorting to baseless belief. His two main principles are called the “4 Causes” & the “Syllogism.”
What is the 4 Causes?
The 4 Causes is a set of 4 categories of answering the question, “why?” When someone asks, “why is there a bronze statue here?” There are four dimensions you answer: The Material, Formal, Efficient, & Final.
- Material: This answers “what is it made of?” Which the answer is bronze metal.
- Formal: This answers “what makes it a statue?” Which the answer is that the bronze metal was shaped into a form of an identifiable object, which then resembles objects we come to know as “statues.”
- Efficient:: This answers “But how did it happen?” Which the answer is that a sculptor took the mined metal and actively shaped the metal to the shape of a given statute.
- Formal: This answers “But why did the sculptor shape the bronze?” Which the answer is that the local government/organization/private investor hired the sculptor to make a statue for the benefit of its observers.
What is a Syllogism?
A syllogism is a logical sequencing of statements that validates or invalidates an original statement. If you say something like “Grant is mortal.” How can we prove that is a valid statement and not just some sneaky person’s trick? We need two more statements to qualify this one, which we could say:
“Grant is a man, all men are mortal. Therefore, Grant is mortal.”
To quickly explain this, think about each term as a circle: This statement claims that the “Grant” circle fits fully within the circle of “Man”, which then in the second statement it claims that the “Man” circle fits completely inside the circle of “Mortal” (because it says “all”). So is the circle of Grant inside the circle of Mortal? Yes it is, which then proves the statement as valid.
What is Aristotle’s Ethical theory?
Aristotle’s Ethics focuses on one of the main components of ethical thought during the Ancient Greek times: the concept of virtue, which is the supreme form of living. Socrates and Plato both talked about the value of virtuous living, but never answered the question of how do you achieve a virtuous life. Aristotle answered this question by claiming virtue is found at the balance between two extremes of vices, which he called “The Golden Mean.” So to achieve the virtue of prudence with money is found at the balance between the vice of being a squandering spendthrift who spends all their money, and the vice of a cheapskate who hoards their money and doesn’t invest in productive or beneficial means. This balance isn’t the direct middle either, but the balance between them so that neither side outweighs the other. Since it’s generally better to save money, the balance between these two would be closer to the cheapskate vice, but the virtue finds the proper balance.
Aristotle was born in Macedonia in 384 B.C. His father was a physician to the Macedonian royal court of Amyntas III, who was the great grandfather of Alexander the Great. When Aristotle was about 18 years old, he went to study at The Academy under Plato, which Aristotle remained in the Academy as both a student and teacher for 20 years until Plato’s death in 347 B.C. He expected that he would be the next master of The Academy, but when he was passed over for the job, he left the Academy and began traveling around to investigate different concepts in biology. For a brief time he was brought back to Macedonia to teach the young prince, Alexander, who later when his father was assassinated, became the ruler of Macedonia and later led a conquest that gave him the name “Alexander The Great.”
After the job of leading The Academy was again open, Aristotle was again passed over for the position. So Aristotle decided to open up his own rival school, called the Lyceum. There is a fundamental difference between these two schools that reflect the personality differences between Plato and Aristotle. While both were born into families of privileged power, Plato was born to an Athenian aristocratic family, while Aristotle was born into a doctor’s family. Plato’s Academy was designed to prepare future aristocrats, and focused more on subjects pertaining to political science and law, meanwhile the Lyceum focused more on the physical sciences. Plato had his students reading his Republic and trying to understand the concept of Forms, while Aristotle was focused on more practical concepts like collecting copies of the constitutions of Greek city-states, and tasking his students to evaluate them and identify the best parts each pertains. Another example is to say that Plato’s Republic would be like going to Oxford or Cambridge, while the Lyceum was more like attending MIT.
Aristotle led the Lyceum until Alexander’s death in 323 B.C. caused chaos internally within the Macedonian empire that sought out individuals to blame for their misfortune. Thus focus turned to Aristotle as a prominent figure who was connected to Alexander, which led to accusations made against Aristotle. These charges would have led to a death penalty and Aristotle did not have the same mindset as Socrates had, so he chose exile, claiming “lest the Athenians sin twice against Philosophy.” But it didn’t really matter too much since he died a year later.
Philosophy and the 4 Causes:
I have to admit, Aristotle has been much harder to wrap my head around, compared to Socrates and Plato; they’ve been fairly easy to create a narrative around their philosophical ideas, but Aristotle doesn’t have a clear narrative through his ideas and his ideas are much more complex from my observation. In one of the textbooks I was reading, it says that Plato is like a hedgehog, who knows one thing really well (the concept of Forms), while Aristotle is like a fox who is a Jack-of-all-trades who knows many things. So while this will focus primarily on his philosophical work, the study of Aristotle goes way beyond this observation, for instance, Aristotle cemented one of the main modes of thought in Ethics with his Virtue Ethics theory, which I will focus on when I start studying the applied form of philosophy in ethics at a later time. But for here I’ll just express one observation of Aristotle’s ethics.
Aristotle is driven to create a solid foundation for knowledge, obviously influenced by the teachings of Plato, as Plato sought to build a foundation to combat the Sophists of Athens. So much of Aristotle’s philosophical concepts are to help provide assurance of knowledge. Aristotle wants to be sure he has actual knowledge and not just an opinion or belief that can be shaken by mere persuasion of the Sophists. The first one I’ll talk about is Aristotle’s explanation for the presence of objects in reality. It seems like Aristotle had an abnormally inquisitive child or he just lacked the patience of dealing with the classic child’s question of the repetitive question of “Why?” that brings even the most patient parent to their knees. But Aristotle devised a plan to answer this question and that is called the “4 Causes.” The word “Cause” here is not used in how we generally use it, like in the term “cause-and-effect” but it’s more like saying, “because.” So you could say these are like the short-hand form of “because” when you say ” ’cause.”
So what are these four becauses? They are: Material, Formal, Efficient, and Final causes. To explain what these are, let’s look at the Seattle Space Needle; why is there a tall structure standing in the middle of Lower Queen Anne? How did that happen?
The Material Cause looks at the physical components and says that it is comprised of steel, glass, cement, and paint. You can’t have a Space Needle without having all that steel that makes up the majority of that structure, nor the glass at the top that helps create that 360 degree panoramic view. Without those materials there is no Space Needle.
Next is the Formal Cause, which like the word implies, is like what Plato is observing when he talks about what we observe are only reflections of the perfect Forms. So we can say the Space Needle is generally a building since it has comprised the materials in a fashion that resembles the category of “building.” Also the large quantity of material comprised in a vertical extension meets the criteria of “skyscraper” and even more specifically it is comprised to a particular observable shape that we gave it the title “Space Needle.”
If you explain this to a inquisitive child, you will probably be asked next “But how did it get there?” That is the third cause of Efficient Cause, which is that it came to being because architects, carpenters, construction workers, lawyers, businessmen, and politicians came together to construct the building. Just because all these materials exist in nature, there is no natural Space Needle by chance, but rather an architect mapped out a design for the building, a construction team assembled the pieces together to what resulted in a Space Needle.
The most controversial one is the Final Cause, which answers that next question after explaining how it was construction when the kid asks “but why?” The Final Cause is that Edward Carlson wanted a building that conceptualized what the future buildings may look like for the 1962 World’s Fair which was 21st Century-themed. The Space Needle served as the means to the end of imagining the future. If that idea isn’t there in Edward Carlson’s mind, there is no Space Needle.
To further elaborate on the Final Cause, why do we have an axe? The purpose of an axe is to chop wood, and the axe is in its purest form when it is being used to chop wood, likewise, if there was no need to chop wood, there would be no axe. Or what about a leg? We have a leg (preferably two of them) because they are efficient means of moving our bodies around. Why this is controversial is when we start trying to make final causes for everything and especially when something doesn’t function as “it is supposed to.” Is a person less of a person if their spine has been fractured and they are now quadriplegic?
Using these four causes helps you to have more solid understanding of what it is that you really know. If a pesky Sophist (or child) poses a question to you about why a particular thing is what it is, the four causes helps you prove that you possess actual knowledge that you can refer to and validate that isn’t vulnerable to trickery.
Aristotle’s Logic and Syllogism:
Understanding Aristotle’s logic has been by far the hardest part of my studying so far. I don’t know why hardly anyone can be on the same page when describing Aristotle’s logic, but it has been incredibly hard to piece this all together for some reason. With that, I believe I’m only giving a surface level of this stuff, especially when it comes to the Syllogism, but hopefully I can save you the headache that I’ve suffered.
As stated before, Aristotle is focused on that “why” question, he is so paranoid of falling victim to fancy speeches that he develops methods of reasoning that help anchor his thoughts in solid foundation. So in order to make this all happen, he needs a systematic process of dealing with claims so that evidence emerges to validate or invalidate the claim. First off is by categorizing the statement.
A statement is a sentence that makes a particular claim, therefore a statement is either true or it is false. This a great starting point for Aristotle since if we’re left with a binary set of results, then that helps clear any ambiguity, since now all we have to do is discover what that statement is: is it true or is it false?
Now that we have a statement, what makes up a statement? A statement is going to be made up of Terms, which terms can be a bunch of things. Aristotle lists a bunch of Categories that a term can describe:
* Substance: man or horse
* Quantity: two feet long, three feet high
* Quality: white or literate
* Relationship: double, half, or greater
* Place: in the Lyceum, in the marketplace
* Time: yesterday or last year
* Posture: reclining at table, sitting down
* State: having shoes on, being in armor
* Doing: something cutting, burning
* Undergoing: something being cut, being burnt
Now that we have a parameter of what terms can do, we need to see how the terms fit into a sentence, and while I actually really struggle at grammar structure concepts, what I gather is a statement consists of two terms: a subject and a predicate, which generally the subject is the first term and the predicate is the second term, but it doesn’t always function that way. The predicate functions to clarify in some capacity what the subject is in a statement. So, the statement, “Socrates is a man.” Socrates is the subject term, which is being clarified by the predicate term “man.” Socrates is being defined as being in the category of human, or more specifically, man.
Not too hard right? Well now it’s going to get tricky, because now that we got the foundation of how a statement is formed, Aristotle needs to create a format that helps validate if a statement is correct or not regardless of how fancy you talk. This is where the development of the Syllogism comes in.
How a syllogism works is a three-part statement of a set or relationships that have to all agree with each other in order to be validated. But before we dive into a syllogism, we have to introduce a couple more concepts. First is that terms can be described as “universal” or as “particular.” Which we will see in the syllogism when things are categorized as either “all” or “some.” Next is called the “middle term.” What this is is a linking term that connects a subject and predicate together for a logical statement. Yes it’s confusing and this all doesn’t make much sense to me either, but just hang on, I’ll put this all together now.
So let’s now make a claim that, “All men are mortals.” We have the subject, “men” and the predicate, “mortals.” And it’s a universal claim that all men–in that if you are a man– you therefore are mortal. But then someone asks you, “how do you know that?” This is where the syllogism works. We need to now find a method to validate this statement systematically, which we can do by adding two more statements:
“All animals are mortal” & “All men are animals” which this creates the syllogism:
“All animals are mortal”
“All men are animals”
“Therefore, all men are mortal.”
But what just happened here? How does this work or prove anything? First off the reason this has to be three statements is that there is going to be 6 terms used in this syllogism: a subject 2x, a middle term 2x, and a predicate 2x. The subject was “men”, the predicate was “mortal”, and the middle term was “animals.” The middle term can be used as either a subject or as a predicate in a statement, which this one used animals as the subject for the first statement and then was used as the predicate for the second term. Think of the subject and predicate as the extremes in this statement and the middle term is the bridge that connects them together.
Then to validate the syllogism, we have to see if those relationships actually agree with each other. There’s a whole set of mathematical concepts to this that don’t make sense to me at all, so what I’ve focused on primarily to make sense of this is visualizing each term as boxes. Let’s start with the first statement: “all animals are mortal” what’s the relationship between animals and mortal? Well, for every single animal to be mortal, then if they were boxes, the animal circle would be fully inside the box of “mortal.” The box of mortal can have more to it than animals, but you can’t have an animal that resides outside the box of mortal.
Next we have “all men are animals.” Again, what is the relationship to men to animals? Well, it says that box encompassing “men” has to be fully inside of “animals.” To be defined as man, one has to be inside the category of “animal.”
Therefore, what now is the relationship of man to mortality as the original claim? We see that man is fully within the category of animals, which animals is fully within the category of mortality, thus proves that all men are indeed mortal.
Does that seem obvious, or perhaps incomprehensible confusing? Well, let’s briefly look at another example then to help clarify:
No sparrows are mammals.
No mammals are plants.
Therefore: No sparrows are plants.
Each of these statements is true. But is this a valid argument? Do the reasons offered make true the conclusion? Actually they don’t! This is not a valid argument even though the facts are correct. What this shows is a way of testing what Plato talked about when comparing knowledge vs. belief. Sure you may know something, but do you really know why you know what you know? It is quite obvious that sparrows are not plants, but what is your reasoning for knowing that is not the case? Let’s break this down.
So the circle of sparrows is completely apart from the box of mammals, then the box of mammals is completely apart from the box of plants. So then what is the relationship between sparrows and plants? We don’t know! There is no relationship expressed here that provides us conclusive evidence that sparrows are or are not plants since the middle term did nothing to help us clarify that relationship.
Phew! I hope that makes sense because that was a pain to try to put together, but that is the basics of Aristotle’s logic and held as the premiere method of logical reasoning all the way up to the 19th century when people started picking up studying logic as a subject.
Ethics and the Golden Mean:
There’s a whole study of Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics that I will come back to at a later time and dive more deeper into, but for today I’ll just provide a brief introduction to how it functions.
Aristotle’s belief of how to live the good life is similar to how Socrates and Plato describe happiness, primarily since this was the conventional way of thinking of happiness in Ancient Greece. Their view is that if you live a virtuous life, you will live a happy life since things that are good in nature are good for you individually.
In Ancient Greece, there were a set of core virtues: Courage, Justice, Prudence, and Temporance. Aristotle concluded that list should be expanded to about 11 which he identified virtues being: Courage, Temperance, Liberality, Magnificence, Magnanimity, Pride, Patience, Truthfulness, Wittiness, Friendliness, and Modesty. Aristotle is left with the same question that Socrates wrestled with which is: what exactly are these virtues? How do we know we are acting virtuously? Socrates did not give an answer, but concluded that the answer would be a universal answer found in knowledge that would answer every instance of the issue of virtue. Aristotle went down a different route and concluded that virtue is an individual experience.
What Aristotle concluded was that virtue is found in contrast with what are its opposites. So to find courage, we look at two extremes that are not courage. On one end we see the complete lack of bravery which is Cowardice, but what happens if you have so much bravery that you aren’t rational? What if you aren’t willing to make calculated decisions and jump into the fire without thinking? That represents the other extreme in Foolhardy recklessness. Therefore, Courage is found in the balance between these two extremes. To have courage, is to be able to rise up when a challenge presents itself and not succumb to fear, but also having the foresight of what is at stake and willing to set aside your pride for a greater future outcome. This balance is called “The Golden Mean” and is the core of Aristotle’s ethics.
Now this Golden Mean is not the median middle between extremes either, since this where the individual aspect of virtue is displayed. Imagine walking on a tightrope with two buckets on either end: on one end you have Cowardice and the other being Foolhardiness. If your bucket of Cowardice is heavier than the Foolhardiness, then holding the bar in the middle is going to push you pull you off balance so that you fall of the tightrope. What you need to do is center the point of gravity by shifting your grip closer to the Cowardice side so that there is more compensating weight given to the Foolhardiness side, and that is the balance for you to possess the virtue of Courage.
Why there has to be an individual aspect of it is because we all are the same individuals. To give an example of why we have to account for the individual, I’ll refer to an illustration I read about the scenario of being mugged in a dark alley. If someone comes up behind you with a knife and demands you give them your wallet, what is the virtuous action should you take? Well for the most part, the right thing to do is give them your wallet, since if you try to take your assailant on, you most likely will be stabbed and either die or be critically injured along with your wallet being stolen. Was that courageous or just foolhardy? Was acting against the assailant really an act of courage simply because you did not act toward cowardice? I think in that given circumstance the virtuous thing is to act calm and give over your wallet.
But what happens if you’re not just an average citizen, and in fact you are a recently discharged Navy SEAL who has spent years training in close quarters combat and methods of quick reaction to disarm your opposition? Would giving up your wallet then be courageous if you in fact possess the capability of defending yourself? With this hypothetical scenario, Aristotle would conclude that inaction would be more cowardly for the former SEAL than the average citizen, and action would be less foolhardy for the former SEAL.
Aristotle is also focused on excellence as an element for virtue. Just like we can observe the best end in the mugging scenario is if we have the capacity to disarm the thug, we can build up forms of excellence that help us to perform better in virtue. There’s again Socratic influence in this mindset, in that Aristotle doesn’t look at the mugger in this scenario as evil, but lacks the requisite knowledge of what is virtuous and helpful for their wellbeing. We need to focus on how we can build up ourselves and see that we’re on a continued growth plan into virtuous living.
What Aristotle is saying is that these virtues are essentially habits; you develop a tendency to be courageous by becoming more capable to act out competently what would be foolhardy for others. Happiness is found in excellence. Just like listening to a well-composed music piece that is played by a professional violinist when compared to a unskilled violinist, you enjoy listening to the professionally-performed piece (unless it’s your adorable child who you’ve had to invest every friday night for the past four months to taking them to music lessons, then of course you’re going to LOVE your child’s piece).
It should be clarified that while Aristotle highlights the individual relative position of virtue, that is not to be extrapolated to virtue to being relativistic. Aristotle isn’t going the route that says there is no truth and everything is simply relative; there is an objective truth, however it depends on the individual’s relative position to being capable to approaching the objective truth that dictates a virtuous action at the present moment.
Aristotle is very much a practical philosopher who focuses primarily on giving applicable answers. His focus isn’t on answering the big questions of philosophy as much as answering questions that are actionable. I didn’t really cover much of his metaphysical philosophy, but he does dive into it a bit, but for the most part he’s looking answers that guide our daily life. It’s not about identifying what is knowledge or reality, but how do we actually live it out. So Aristotlian approach to logic is to focus on identifying how do you know. Is what you think to be true actually so or is it a belief? Can you defend it without having circular logic?
Using the 4 Causes isn’t directly that applicable in breaking a question up into those four parts, but the idea of seeing what answer lies behind multiple iterations of the question “why” does help you to uncover an underlying logic or belief that is driving the situation. The 4 Causes is a mental key to not take information at face value but to gain a more wholistic perspective of the topic at hand.
While the 4 Causes help to uncover what is the hidden variable of a topic, The Syllogism is useful for checking the validity of your belief. This is more of a test to see how credible your thinking is, and while again this direct method isn’t practical today, it is good exercise to see where your thinking fits in relation to other premises as well. This helps you to step back and check to see what is your reasoning that you have? Why did you quickly and emotionally respond to a politically charge Facebook post? Do you believe people that all people who are X are all Y and thus they only do Z, so you treat assume an X is worthy of R treatment? Maybe if you took a step back and saw your logical reasoning, you see that you’re making generalized assumptions.
The Golden Mean is useful in that helps you to see that balance in life and to see how each individual balances the two extremes differently. This isn’t to resort to apathetic relativism, but to identify how one’s expression of courage can look different with from one person to another while still having a similar result in demonstrating virtuous courage. We can look at someone like William Wallace and Gandhi as both demonstrating courage even though one was using violence to pursue freedom while Gandhi absorbed violence and dismantled violence in demonstrating courage.
See if you can answer these questions:
Who was Aristotle? Who was his teacher?
Why did he start the Lyceum?
What is the Golden Mean?
How can we answer the question “why is there a house here?”
- Aristotle was a philosopher who came from Macedonia to study under Plato at The Academy. He was comprehensive genius who was probably the most knowledgeable individual of the ancient world. He started the formal practice of logic and applied ethical theory.
- He started the Lyceum primarily because he was repeatedly passed over for the head master position of The Academy. Which ultimately it was for the better since his idea of a school was significantly different than what Plato had designed and the two rival schools helped to nurture two different modes of thinking: The Academy being more metaphysical and political while The Lyceum was more applied thinking.
- The Golden Mean is a balance between two different extremes that produces a virtuous act or state of being.
- The 4 Causes breaks down the question into four parts: Material, Formal, Efficient, and Final causes. Material is the house is made of wood, glass, paint, metal, etc. Formal is that the materials are assembled into the shape of a house. Efficient is that architects designed the blueprint for the house, and a contractor’s team implemented the design to construct the house. The Final is an investor wanted to have a beachfront home to display their financial success and superiority over those who visit the house because they’ve neglected their family for the past decade slaving at a corporate job and the isolation and anxiety of being a workaholic pushes them to seek material possessions to reassure they are living a good life…. or something like that.